The past two or three days were the best we’ve spent so far, even if parts of them were cold, wet, or uncomfortable. We visited a tourist camp called Буянт (“Boyant,” more or less), and it was absolutely marvelous. I know we’ll be heading to the countryside again next weekend, and I hope it’s as much fun as this was.
Five of us – everyone but the two Lisas – went out for the first time on Friday. We met one of our coordinators at a place called the Grand Khan Irish Pub. The only “Irish” thing about it was that it served Jameson, Guinness, and Murphy’s – but in cans, which no self-respecting Irishman would ever drink. We had a good time regardless, especially when the band started playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” It seems we came halfway around the world just to hear the same music.
After our first round of drinks, we left for another bar Chimgee knew of. On our way, we managed to pick up a drunken Kazakh name Eric. He introduced himself to all of us in English and then followed us into the second pub. This one had already closed, though it wasn’t yet 11 pm, so we moved on to a third placed called the Golden Lounge. I hadn’t expected to go clubbing, and none of us were really dressed for it, but when we found ourselves at a club, everyone went with the flow.
Inside, the place looked like a cross between a laser light show and the set of Rent. We sat around a table on the upper deck and ordered what, split evenly, was the cheapest thing on the menu: a bottle of vodka. I’m not usually one for shots, and straight vodka’s not exactly my thing, but even the cheap Mongolian vodka is better than a lot of expensive American stuff, so it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I did skip a couple of rounds, mindful of my last experience with vodka; I didn’t mind being the least intoxicated of our party.
Chimgee, Lauren, and I left the boys to dance at one point, while they polished off the remaining 30% of the bottle. Mongolian club dancing is very different from American. There’s no grinding – the men and women touch at the hands, if at all. There were a lot more men than women on the dance floor, most of whom bopped around in a style distinctly reminiscent of awkward bar/bat mitzvah attendees. One by one, the boys filtered down to join us, though we each took a turn guarding the table with all our stuff.
It might to have been what I expected of the evening, but it was a lot of fun There were no incidents with handsy or pushy Mongolian men, though Lucas was convinced there was trouble brewing between him and the guy who wanted our table by the time we left at 12:30 or so. The music was largely remixed pop, much of it American, and it wasn’t so loud that left feeling deafened, as is often the case at American clubs. Aside from the grumpy taxi driver who overcharged us on the way home, it was a great night.
I was up at eight the next morning to pack for our overnight trip to the countryside. Evidently, I was one of the first to rise – at least two of our party slept through their alarms and were rudely awakened at 9:30, when we were getting ready to leave. I’m glad I paced myself the night before, as I was the only one of the five who went out who wasn’t hung over in the morning. Lucas and Eli in particular were pretty miserable during our long train ride.
The train itself wasn’t much fun. We split up to fill whatever spaces we could find, which often meant cramming uncomfortably close together. I had a window frame digging into my back for most of the ride, and the car grew uncomfortably warm. Best of all, the train broke dwon for two hours with a third of the journey left to go. We were all starving by the time we arrived around 3, and very glad to disembark.
The view from the train windows, though, was incredible – shining rivers that wound between green mountains, rolling plains dotted with clumps of white gers, dust roads lined with brightly-painted buildings. I could bare contain my delight as we neared our destination, my window showing me a herd of small, stocky horses wandering along the riverside.
“This is paradise,” I breathed as I stepped down onto the platform, and I heard several of the others voice the same opinion. We were in a little valley, surrounded by green mountains and blue sky. These mountains might not measure up to those of my childhood, but they were majestic nonetheless.
So, naturally, the first thing we did after dumping our stuff and scarfing down lunch (soup and гуляш, or gouliash) was to climb one. We didn’t even stop to grab water bottles or grab walking sticks – we ambled towards the nearest mountain, and before we knew it, we were on our way up. The ascent probably took us an hour and a half, but we were in not real hurry. We stopped often to marvel at wildflowers and mountain views, or to comment on the agility of the cows, horses, and sheep that had clearly preceded us. Eli and Lucas reached the top first, followed by Joe, then me, and then Lauren. I had caught by breath and was getting goosebumps from the cool breeze by the time our teacher Bold reached the top with Bayasmaa’s 15-year-old niece, Undra. Bayasmaa herself appeared shortly after that, holding her three-year-old grandson by the hand. We’d taken lots of pictures by this point, and I had found a walking stick for the descent. It was almost six o’clock at this point, and we were supposed to be at dinner at seven, so after taking a few group pictures, we headed back down.
Dinner was hearty – four хуушуур (hoshoor) is a lot – and lunch had been only four hours previous. But the hike had given us an appetite, and nearly everyone finished the flat, fried dumplings full of meat, onion, and cabbage.
We were in for a special treat after dinner: one of the staff members asked if we’d like to see her milk the cows. We agreed enthusiastically, and with a little persuading, we even got her to let us give the milking a try. I did reasonably well, I think, though I could certainly do better with more practice. The cow she let us milk was called ‘small one;’ besides being small, she was the gentlest and the least likely to fuss and upset the milk. This was an important factor, as the bucket was nearly full by the time we got to try. It was warmer than I’d expected, verging on hot, and capped with a thick layer of frothy cream.
That pail of milk appeared on our breakfast table the next morning, in the form of homemade тараг – yogurt. This was thick and sweetened, and I disliked it less than the other Mongolian dairy products I’ve tried, but even so, I could only manage a few spoonfuls before it started to make me queasy. Everyone else found it delicious, and I’m beginning to fear there is no hope for me where Mongolian dairy is concerned. Everything has a strong, gamy aftertaste that I just can’t stomach. And if I can’t manage freshly-made yogurt, I don’t think there’s anything I can. I can’t abide сүүтэй цай, for instance, even though everyone in Mongolia seems to enjoy this salty, buttery milk tea. You’d think a tea-lover would be in paradise in Asia, but Mongolia seems to be the exception to the rule.
On the other hand, Mongolia has a lot in common with other Asian countries (particularly India, from what Corry tells me) where the toilet situation is concerned. I learned the hard way at this tourist camp that it’s always a good idea to carry toilet paper with you. I’m pretty used to latrines, but at least they usually have seats and toilet paper. The outhouse at Буянт was more of a Turkish toilet, which is to say, a building with a hole in the floor. And no TP. City buildings usually have more standard toilets, but even they are not always equipped with toilet paper. Note duly taken; I shall be better prepared for our three-day journey to the countryside this weekend.
We were also disapointed by the lack of showers. It’s not something I would have expected had I known more about where we were going, but we had been told they would available and were rather counting on that fact. Our dorm has been without hot water for almost two weeks now, so a hot shower would have been a lovely departure from the cold shower/warm basin bath combination I’ve resorted to.
At least the train ride back was nice. We were cold and wet by the time it arrived, and my toes were going numb; it had been raining for a solid twelve hours at that point, and the temperature was probably down to the high forties. But the setup was much nicer once we were onboard. Lisa B., Lucas, Eli, and I had our own compartment – a vast improvement over the cramped quarters on the previous ride. We curled up under the blankets they provided, ordered Russian-style instant coffee (which is more sugar than coffee), told embarrassing stories, and played with Bayasmaa’s grandson, who kept popping in and out. The landscape appeared a little more drab than before, overshadowed by the dreary sky, but we enjoyed our journey and the view nonetheless. We all wished we’d been so comfortable for the longer ride out, but it was a great way to end the weekend nonetheless.